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Dearth of the Documentary

08-22-2011 13:44 BJT

BEIJING, Aug. 22 (Xinhuanet) -- The 2009 French nature documentary Oceans, with a commentary by noted director-actor Jiang Wen, was finally released in China earlier this month. Yet despite a rapturous welcome from media, it only secured distribution in 1,000 cinema nationwide, leading critics to urge Chinese theaters to give more attention to documentaries.

Tough competition

Oceans secured Jiang as a Chinese narrator to boost its showing here, supported by advance praise via the Internet. "Cinema managers are not optimistic about Oceans and many cinemas didn't give it showing slots," admitted Meng Yao, from Oceans' Chinese distributor.

Recent Chinese documentary Yu Lu, produced by Jia Zhangke, faced the same problem. "We relied on a little help from friends. One cinema owner in Yunnan liked Yu Lu very much and gave [it] a special chance but it didn't solve the problem fundamentally" said Jia.

However, according to Meng, things are now looking up for Oceans, which is directed by Jacques Perrin and features more than 100 species of animal from five different oceans.

"This week, distribution increased to 1,400 screens every day. Some cinemas are even giving it the best time of the day… it means there are people in favor of documentaries," Meng said. However, with strong competitors like Transformers 3 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2, Oceans has a limited chance.

Last year, 13 documentaries were shown in Chinese cinemas; none succeeded in getting its investment back, with propaganda documentary Fu Xing Zhi Lu achieving the best of all, with a 2 million yuan box-office revenue. Jia Zhangke's I Wish I Knew achieved only 500, 000 yuan.

Foreign success

By contrast, documentaries are a well-accepted cinematic medium abroad. Top grossers range from Malcolm Moore's politically incendiary Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) at just under $120 million, to March of the Penguins (2005) ($77,437,223)and Al Gore's 2006 environmental polemic An Inconvenient Truth ($24,146,161). Oceans ranks at number 8 in global box-office documentary receipts, at just under $20 million. In Japan, its opening day exceeded Avatar's record.

"Chinese viewers have a limited understanding about documentaries," filmmaker Jia said. "In China, most documentaries are shown on TV and the Internet, and viewers don't have the habit to go to cinemas to see [one]; many assume they should be free of charge."

Documentary filmmaking in China not only faces distribution difficulties but funding problems from the start. Oceans had a 55 million-euro investment, although Perrin said it was not easy and took a lot of persuasion. But for the Chinese documentary, such an amount is like reaching for the stars and most can best manage only 20- 50,000 yuan.

"In Europe, you find various funds and organizations to support documentaries and art films. It could either be government support or a commercial group. You simply apply for it, as long as your project is good enough," said Jia. According to Jia, his recent project received support from Europe to the tune of 70 percent of its costs.

Little optimism

Apart from the high investment, Oceans was seven years in the making, with 12 film units visiting 54 locations to shoot. Many viewers are amazed by its spectacular sights and doubt if Chinese filmmaker could ever make such a film.

"If a Chinese director was given the same money and manpower, I wouldn't think they could make such a good film as Oceans," 29-year-old cinemagoer Yao Yu told the Global Times.

"Documentary makers don't get feedback from viewers, since they are all shown on TV and most topics are propaganda. That's why documentaries are almost dead in China," film critic Hu Liang told the Global Times. "That kind of 30-minute episode, with set narration and structure, is definitely not meant for cinemas. But if a good topic is found, with the appropriate filmmaking, it could be successful," Jia argued.

Documentary-friendly cinema lines are also needed. MOMA's Broadway cinema in Beijing was the first arthouse cinema in China. Many independent movies have shown there and received good results; Deep In The Clouds, Liu Jie's 2010 Yunnan ethnic minority docu-drama about the clash between superstition and modernity, was so well-received that MOMA had to schedule showings almost every week and sold out every time.

"Documentaries don't normally have such big budgets. With a relatively small amount of viewers, a film could get its investment back. At the same time, there are documentary lovers who can't find a place to see them," said Hu. "If more art cinemas like MOMA Broadway could come out, that could benefit the documentary."

"The Stone Age" kicks off

Directed by emerging young director Wang Song, low-budget movie The Stone Age announced shooting last Friday, with Hayama Go, Huang Lu and Gong Beibi as the female lead.

The film, adapted from the novel of the same title, reveals the adventure of male lead Go in the Neolothic era. According to Wang, Go and Huang both will act as Stone Age people, don animal skins and will even enjoy "intimate scenes."

The film is shooting in Beijing for the first two weeks and Gansu Province for the rural scenes. It is scheduled to screen in cinemas next March.

Editor:Wang Xiaomei |Source: Xinhua

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